Confronting Community

Day schools must continuously ask themselves what their stakeholders share in common. Their answers will have serious implications for the goals they set for themselves, the way they are structured, and the approach they take to teaching.

Rarely, however, do we question what we mean when we talk about community.

The concept of community has evolved over the past thirty years, becoming a topic of heated discussion among scholars of education. In response to reports that a general demise in community has had a negative effect on society, some educational theorists have called upon school leaders to emphasize community building in schools to inspire future generations to become active community members. These appeals have met resistance from theorists who question the appropriateness and effectiveness of such initiatives in enabling today’s schools to accomplish their educational and democratic goals. The result is a vigorous debate about the fundamental nature of community in twenty-first century educational institutions.

This debate has sharpened scholars’ thinking about community in schools, and a similar line of questioning should be occurring within the realm of Jewish education. The following is a description of some of the questioning that has taken place among general educational theorists, and an exploration of the relevance of this debate to Jewish day schools.

Deconstructing Community in Schools

Some scholars voice concerns about a general deterioration of community in American society that they associate with the shift from communities that are Gemeinschaft to communities that are Gesellschaft. They borrow these terms from Ferdinand Tonnies’s classical work in sociology in which he describes social relationships within society along a continuum from Gemeinschaft, where relationships are based on shared kinship, shared location, and shared mind, to Gesellschaft, where relationships are created with a specific, often business-oriented purpose in mind. While a Gemeinschaft is ethnically homogeneous, close-knit, and somewhat involuntary, a Gesellschaft is functional, rational, strategic, and completely voluntary. Each social arrangement in society exhibits some qualities from each end of the continuum and is characterized as either gemeinschaftlich or gesellschaftlich based on the resulting balance. Social arrangements that are characterized as gemeinschaftlich are associated with a stronger sense of community and those that are characterized as gesellschaftlich are associated with a stronger sense of individualism. Most twenty-first century social arrangements have become overwhelmingly gesellschaftlich.

As scholars’ laments over the loss of gemeinschaftlich community increased, some educators in the early 1990s were quick to suggest that schools should be at the forefront of efforts to salvage such community in modern society. Armed with empirical research that demonstrates that building community within schools leads to academic, social, and emotional improvements among students and teachers, these educators paved the way for reforms aimed at increasing the sense of community within public schools. They believed that organizing schools as communities would strengthen social bonds among students and halt the demise of Gemeinschaft. To achieve this end, they implemented several initiatives such as encouraging a culture of collaboration among teachers, experimenting with new curricula, and creating schools within schools.

Other educators were equally quick to combat these efforts by challenging the effectiveness of building community in today’s schools. Educators such as Kenneth Strike and Nel Noddings criticized the notion that members of a gemeinschaftlich community must share something in common, claiming that the world is too diverse for this expectation to be realistic. They voiced concern that those who do not share the collective’s common goal, idea, or commitment would be automatically excluded from the community, raising the possibility of discrimination, intolerance, distrust of outsiders, coercion, uniformity, and assimilation.

Others, such as Gail Furman and Ernestine Enomoto, cited the complexity of the modern world as a hindrance to efforts to build gemeinschaftlich communities in modern schools. They explained that today’s students are mobile, today’s families are interspersed, and today’s cities are multiple times larger than the small towns that characterized Gemeinschaft. Furthermore, as they described, modern individuals prefer to be part of multiple temporary social groups rather than attaching themselves to a single permanent social group and cannot be expected to accept the values of group leaders. While these educators were critical of traditional understandings of community, they did not negate the importance of building community. Rather, they pushed thinking among scholars and practitioners regarding the definitions and boundaries of community and experimented with new models of community.

The debate over the place of community in modernity is far from resolved. However, the resulting discussion has helped theorists and educators clarify their understanding of community and adapt their thinking to meet the realities of the twenty-first century. They have shifted from defining community only in terms of common beliefs and values, common geography, and common heritage to examining more closely how people are united by sharing various elements in their lives. They have come to understand that individuals can be united into communities by a range of factors, including common experiences, common appreciation of difference, common dedication to taking care of one another, or a common devotion to critical reflection, dialogue, and process. They have also accepted the notion that each community is different and that what unites one group may not be a unifying element in another group. Theorists continue to question their understandings of community, often seeking definitions that are flexible enough to fit the changing realities of a diverse, modern society but substantial enough that they exclude collectivities with weak, ephemeral bonds.

A Shifting Day School Community

The Jewish world has experienced changes in its communal relationships similar to those experienced in the broader society. Just as observers have identified a decrease in civic duty within the general American public, Jewish leaders have noted a drop in synagogue membership and shifting forms of identification and affiliations within the Jewish community. Jewish society is more diverse in its values, ideologies, and lifestyles than it was 30 years ago and is no longer as ethnically homogenous as it once was. These realities challenge the notion of “Jewish” community and have sparked initiatives in Jewish education that parallel the general educators’ attempts to model community in schools in an effort to preserve the future of Judaism in America. However, there has not been a parallel attempt among Jewish educators to examine how the term community is used within the field or the ramifications of the evolving sense of community on the Jewish education that day school educators provide.

Day school education was created at a time when Jewish community, even in America, preserved several characteristics of a Gemeinschaft. The first day school families lived in close proximity to one another, shared a common heritage, and shared a common interest in maintaining close connections to that heritage. Both denominational and non-denominational, community schools were founded based on the underlying assumption that Jews are united by certain commonalities and that those who choose day school education are primarily interested in maintaining those commonalities. This assumption was critical in shaping early day schools, influencing decisions about curriculum, staff, and other important elements within the school.

Day schools prospered at a time when Jewish leaders were concerned about the decline of the Jewish Gemeinschaft. Many influential Jewish voices responded to reports of rising intermarriage rates in the early 1990s by increasing support for day school education. They emphasized day schools as venues for bolstering Jewish identity and modeling Jewish community, and efforts to strengthen day schools became intertwined with efforts to strengthen Jewish community. In contrast to the debates on community that were growing simultaneously among scholars of general education, there was little questioning among Jewish educators as to the appropriateness and effectiveness of applying the concept of community in Jewish day schools or the vision of community they were pursuing.

Jewish day school education faces serious challenges as we enter the second decade of the twenty-first century as a result of various sociological, demographic, economic, and political factors. One factor that needs to be explored more thoroughly is the mismatch between common assumptions about community and the realities of the modern Jewish community. In an era when Gesellschaft has become more influential in society, it may no longer be safe to assume that day school stakeholders share as much in common as they may have shared in the past; it may no longer be safe to assume that any particular school population resembles a Gemeinschaft in any sense at all; and it may no longer be safe to assume that the primary reason why children are in Jewish day schools is because parents are dedicated to the preservation of a gemeinschaftlich Jewish community. While Jewish educators may differ from their non-Jewish counterparts in their understanding of community and its implications for education, refraining from deep analysis of the concept may lead to missed opportunities for improving Jewish education.

Implications for Jewish Educators

Today’s day school stakeholders, like other individuals, compartmentalize their identities so that they are able to connect with multiple groups at one time. Though their association with Judaism may be a piece, in some cases even a significant piece, of their personas, this connection is only one of many facets of their identification. If stakeholders share little in common other than a loyalty to a largely undefined sense of “Jewishness,” their common connection may be overpowered by the many interests that they do not share, and they would function as a loosely connected set of interest groups rather than as a traditional gemeinschaftlich community. As a result, even within schools where populations are heavily identified with Judaism, policies based on an assumption of commonalities may prove to be ineffective in motivating active involvement in the school community. Policies based on a deep understanding of the school community as it actually exists and an openness to changes in the nature of community would be more effective in inspiring school stakeholders.

Day schools must continuously ask themselves what their stakeholders share in common. Their answers will have serious implications for the goals they set for themselves, the ways they are structured, and the approaches they take to teaching. A discovery that school stakeholders are no longer connected by a particular perspective on Judaism would require that school leaders find new elements to unify the school, possibly in addition to the school’s Jewish purpose. This may mean reconstructing the school’s visioning statement around a common sense of responsibility for one another, a common mission, a common experience, or a common process. This shift would likely require practical adaptations: changes may need to be made to school-wide rituals; policies surrounding minyanim, siddurim, kashrut, and Shabbat observance may need to be updated; school-wide celebrations may need to be scaled back or further developed; choices of Judaic studies offerings may need to be revisited; and new forms of experiential education may need to be implemented. The result would be a school community that is driven, at least temporarily, by a common purpose while allowing individuals to maintain connections to their individual interests. When this purpose loses its ability to unify, the process would start anew.

Simultaneously, Jewish educational scholars must follow the lead of our non-Jewish colleagues in becoming more aware of the multiple ways that community is understood and used within our schools. We may wonder: Does each day school serve the same type of community? Do all Jewish community organizations represent the communal interests of all day school communities? To what does each day school refer when it claims to promote continuity of the American Jewish community? Is there crossover in the way we are using the term community when we speak about our professional communities, our learning communities, and our local Jewish communities?

How we answer these questions has deep ramifications on both individual educational programs and the Jewish community as a whole. Failing to address them may blind us to important changes with the potential to improve the effectiveness of our schools. Addressing them wisely will allow us to create schools whose students value their own Judaism while building community with those who affiliate with Judaism differently and will play an important role in preserving Judaism in the twenty-first century. ♦

Shira Hammerman is pursuing a doctorate in Education and Jewish Studies at New York University and is the educational consultant at Areyvut. She can be reached at

Shira Hammerman
Strengthening Community
Knowledge Topics
Professional Leadership
Published: Fall 2010